Ideation and Entrepreneurship: Interview with Liz Alexander and Naveen Lakkur

Dr. Liz Alexander (who I interviewed in 2013 on the topic of thought leadership) and Naveen Lakkur (Director, Founder Institute, India) wrote a new book titled “FOUND – Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas Into One Sustainable Business. The book is short but powerful enough to help entrepreneurs and ideators in bringing their ideas to life by following a proven five part framework. I loved the simplicity of the framework and real-life case studies which complement the insights.

 

I interviewed Dr. Liz and Naveen Lakkur to learn more about the book and how it can help ideators and entrepreneurs.

[Tanmay Vora] Thank you Liz and Naveen, for sharing your insights here. I read your new book “FOUND – Transforming Your Unlimited Ideas Into One Sustainable Business” with great interest. I was curious to know what prompted you to write this book?

Thank you, Tanmay, for your interest in FOUND, which was a labor of love for us both. We always intended that this contribution be a catalyst that increases the success rate of entrepreneurship, not just remain a book. Especially since there seemed to be such a waste of time, energy and financial resources by many entrepreneurs in pursuing ideas that could not support sustainable businesses. You may have seen the statistic quoted by Adeo Ressi, the CEO and founder of Founder Institute in the Foreword to our book, that only about four in every 1,000 startups founded each year create a global impact. That equates to a 0.4% success rate, which I think you will agree is shockingly low. We sincerely hope that by following the proven, five-part process outlined in our book, we will see a considerable improvement in this figure in the months and years to come.

only about four in every 1,000 startups founded each year create a global impact. That equates to a 0.4% success rate

[Tanmay Vora] What is the number one thing according to you that keeps people from acting on their ideas?

It’s a great feeling, isn’t it, when you have what you believe to be a winning idea? You imagine that executing on it will be fun, easy, and rewarding. It’s only when you have to take action that you are thrust back into the world of reality. So we would say “fear of failure” is the top thing that stops people from moving forward with their ideas. Because then they have to face up to the fact that their desired outcomes may or may not come about. You have to have a strong heart and a huge amount of commitment to succeed as an entrepreneur—in fact, any kind of ideator. Which is why, for many people, it’s more comfortable for them to say, “I could have gone ahead with this idea, but….” and find excuses for not taking action. Despite the fact that there is always a huge amount of learning and benefit that comes out of seeing whether that idea could have become a viable business or a new product or service within an organisation.

“fear of failure” is the top thing that stops people from moving forward with their ideas.

[Tanmay Vora] Ideas are cheap, they say, execution is everything. But executing on an idea that is not viable is even worse. Is there an approach to guide us when assessing the business viability of our ideas?

You’ve hit the nail on the head of what the FOUND process is all about, Tanmay. The five-part framework we make available to readers reduces the time, money, and effort they may have otherwise expended on an idea that couldn’t become a business.

Let us offer a story from the book to illustrate what we mean. One of mentees that worked with Naveen through the Founder Institute, Bangalore had a background in Human Resources. He had a concept he called “Experience Zones” that he believed would boost employee engagement in large organizations. This, as we know, is a major issue to be solved. So you would expect that there would be no end of companies all vying to back this HR executive’s idea, right?

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. When he had visited 25 different companies to ask them what they thought of his idea, everyone said it was great and he should move ahead with it. But the “N” within the acronym FOUND stands for Negotiation. By that we mean getting more than tacit agreement. This ideator’s assignment was to get at least three letters from companies prepared to financially back his idea. But none of the 25 people who had been so enthusiastic about the overall idea were willing to put money into it.

That’s just one of the five parts of the FOUND process and all of them are essential as a discipline to follow if an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) wants to confirm they have a market that will pay for their solution.

[Tanmay Vora] What are the top three things that an entrepreneur should do before they start acting on their idea?

What entrepreneurs should always look for is to offer a solution that fills a current or potential market need, rather than create a solution that’s looking for a problem to solve.

We’re going to offer three things that should only come after the five things entrepreneurs need to go through when reading FOUND. And they are all to do with creating a community that truly supports the business:

1. Co-founders who can bring different skills and experience to the business, perhaps through a background in marketing or sales or different technical competencies.

2. Customers who, early on in the development of the business, are willing to pay for the solution and prove there is a ready market for it.

3. Catalysts, such as ideation specialists and intellectual property lawyers whose expertise can help guide the start up through some of the stormy waters that lie ahead.

By engaging with all three of these groups, the business can truly accelerate. What entrepreneurs should always look for is to offer a solution that fills a current or potential market need, rather than create a solution that’s looking for a problem to solve.

[Tanmay Vora] My last question stems from Naveen’s introduction in the book which says “Converting Creative Concepts into Commerce with Compassion”. People believe that in most cases, commerce and compassion don’t go well together in a world of cut-throat competition. What does compassionate commerce really mean?

Thanks for this question, Tanmay. I (Naveen) has always believed that these two concepts can co-exist. If you take the definition of compassion it means having a deep awareness and sensitivity for others, especially when it comes to their misfortune. In the Free-Flow chapter of our book we point to how so many successful ventures have been the result of different emotions experienced by the founders.

It is that compassion in understanding that there are major pain points that you can solve for others that makes for the most successful commercial enterprises

Take redBus in India, for example. The whole idea came from the fact that one of the co-founders, Phanindra Sama, wasn’t able to buy a ticket to travel back to his home town during a major festival. It wasn’t just his disappointment that caused him to take action and create redBus but his recognition of how much distress this kind of lack of organization causes others.

In fact, we quote his co-founder, Charan Padmaraju in the same chapter who said, “It was all about building something that would be useful to someone.” It is that compassion in understanding that there are major pain points that you can solve for others that makes for the most successful commercial enterprises, in my view.

My specialization is to play the role of a catalyst to help these creative concepts become commercial realities, with compassion built in. Otherwise all we have is cutthroat competition.

[Tanmay Vora] Thank you so much for sharing your views here, Naveen and Dr. Liz. I am sure readers of this blog will find these ideas and your book, useful in bringing their creative concepts to life.

Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspectives on the ideation process, Tanmay. We’d like to close by pointing out that by following a similarly disciplined process to the one outlined in our book, the Founder Institute has achieved a 91% success rate in terms of ideas that survive, a 70% success rate of entrepreneurs that execute on their plans, and close to 45% success rate of ventures that have attracted external funding. By any measure, all of those statistics are considerable improvements on the 0.4% figure we mentioned in our first response.

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Related Posts at QAspire:

Too Much Celebration Around Failure?

Failure is glorified. In a number of start up events that I have attended, people eloquently talk about how many times they failed before their venture took off. Successful entrepreneurs and role models tell us that failure is good.

Arthur Rock, one of Apple’s board members, said, “The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost” (Isaacson 2011). The tough love gave him the opportunity to become wiser and more mature. (Source)

But there is other side of this feel-good failure thing. Here is an interesting take on the other side of the argument:

I also think not all failure is good. What’s important is being able to tell the difference between the productive failures, where you were a bit overly ambitious but learned important lessons, and wasteful failures, where you’re just throwing out ideas without thinking them through beforehand.

We learn how to walk only after we stumble a few times. We learn by doing, failing, adapting, learning and then applying that learning all over again. But in my view, too much celebration of failure sets us up for more failure and breeds complacence. We  may be setting a wrong precedence for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders. If we fail, we should certainly learn our lessons and there is no stigma attached to it – but only after we have done everything we could have to avoid failure.

I also believe that we should not let our failures stop us from attempting again. Remaining optimistic and hopeful in the face of failure is a critical life skill. 

In the same context, I read this Washington Post article “Failure porn: There’s too much celebration of failure and too little fear” with great interest which says,

People seem to forget that start-up founders can endure years of psychological trauma for naught, employees can lose their jobs and investors can lose significant money. Rather than being a springboard to greatness, failure can simply be devastating.

Paypal’s co-founder Peter Thiel makes an important point as he refers to the concept of ‘accomodating a failure’ as a dangerous one:

“Every time a company fails it is not a beautiful working out of the Darwinian free market and it is not a fantastic educational experience for all involved. Every death is a tragedy and that is even true of deaths of companies.

Not all failures are worth celebrating, especially when stakes are high. And just because failure is marketed well does not mean we should buy it as easily.

Your thoughts?

An Opportunity: Startup Weekend Ahmedabad 2013

 

Most people have bright ideas and they stop at that. Ideating something is a sort of romantic affair because you don’t need to do anything then except putting your bright idea on a piece of paper. We come face-to-face with fear (of failure) when we have to take that first important step, initiate and get into action – and that too, without any support or guidance. The essence is in the act.

Most people with these glorious ideas don’t necessarily need capital alone. They need other people who are passionate, who can validate their idea and help them in executing. They need handholding through this process.

Last week, I was reading about Startup Weekend (SW) – a global entrepreneurship movement that focuses on experiential education for entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. This event has happened in 195 cities covering 65 countries (as in 2011) and is helping people realize their ideas.

The concept behind SW is simple – people with interest in starting their own ventures spend a weekend together (54 hours) in a group and present their ideas, get like-minded individuals on-board, collaborate and start quick prototyping. During this time, they get support from well-known mentors and industry experts to fine-tune their ideas before pitching their business idea to Venture Capitalists on the last day.

In India, SW is happening in almost every major city and I am particularly excited about the fact that it is happening in the city I live in – Ahmedabad – a city known for a very diverse entrepreneurial culture. The event is scheduled from 1st to 3rd March 2013 at IIM – Ahmedabad. The line-up of mentors and judges is impressive.

If you are someone who wants to bring your ideas to life, this is an opportunity to do just that. Even if you are not ready yet and wish to start in a few years down the line, this is a great opportunity to make yourself aware about what goes into building a venture. Who knows, you may start sooner than you planned!

A statistic by CEO of Startup Weekend says that 58% of teams had a working beta at the end of the weekend. Great stuff, isn’t it?

Check out Startup Weekend Ahmedabad’s website for more details about the event.

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How to Establish Thought Leadership? Interview With Dr. Liz Alexander

Thought leadership is important for building careers and for building organizations. It is the most important tool we have as professionals to build our personal brand and establish credibility. What is thought leadership? How does one build thought leadership in his/her area of work?

Let’s find out from Dr. Liz Alexander who recently co-authored a book titled ThoughtLeadership Tweet. In the following interview, Liz shares her ideas on how authentic thought leadership is established.

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[Tanmay Vora] Liz, when I started my own blog in 2006, I had no idea about the concept of thought leadership. But our world is getting hyper-connected and hyper-competitive and clearly, building thought leadership is the best way to attract opportunities. For the benefit of readers of this blog, how would you define a thought leader?

[Liz Alexander] I consider true thought leaders—not content curators, subject matter experts, or trusted advisors who frequently adopt the label—as those who disrupt others’ habitual approaches to issues that concern organizations, industries, or society at large. My co-author Craig Badings and I describe them as advancing the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, relevant, research-backed, new points of view.
My rule of thumb? If you’re calling yourself a thought leader, likely you’re not. It’s a term bestowed on you by others because of your recognized ability to shift their thinking; it’s not something you get to adopt.

[Tanmay Vora] Most people think that having a blog and sending out tweets is a way to build thought leadership. What all goes into making a thought leader?
[Liz Alexander]
While undoubtedly it’s important to channel your contributions out into the world, thought leaders require three things: the right environment in which to think (consider that for a moment; how rarely do today’s organizations provide this?), a strategic focus for those thoughts (again, how many organizations consider up front what they want their thought leadership to achieve?), and the courage to explore possibilities that the vast majority of people never see.

Let me say a little more about that. Natural thought leaders foster their curiosity, are brave enough to challenge established points of view and willing to explore approaches that may appear controversial, at least at first. Wipro’s concept of Intelligent Terminals; Blue Dart Express’ championing of corporate social responsibility in India through their “Living Corporate Responsibility” campaign; the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation’s AMUL model that champions farmer empowerment– these are all examples of organizations who looked broader, thought deeper, reached higher. True thought leadership in action!

[Tanmay Vora] What is the role of “real accomplishments” in being a thought leader? I mean, when we talk about “thought leadership”, is there something called “act leadership” or leadership by doing things?
[Liz Alexander]
I was struck by an analogy I read that described thought leaders as people who sold you tickets for the bus tour, but weren’t necessarily driving the bus. That is, they are doing the thinking that intrigues, inspires and incites others to take the necessary tactical action, such as the three examples given above. They innovate conversations rather than offer up cookie-cutter tactics.

Thought leadership, in order to have any value, must provoke meaningful change. One of the most important “acts” that thought leaders inspire in others is to get them to think through the practical, personalized implications of adopting a new perspective or way of perceiving their industry, organization, or customer base.

[Tanmay Vora] What are the key lessons individuals can take away from your book #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet?
[Liz Alexander]
That there is more to designing and executing a successful, effective thought leadership campaign than most people realize. We’ve done the preliminary thinking for readers by compiling 140 tweet-sized prompts with which organizations can review their existing culture (Tweet # 14: Is your environment supportive of a culture of innovation? How have you demonstrated that in the past?); determine their strategic focus (Tweet #34: What is it you want your target audience to do when they receive or interact with your thought leadership point of view?); and ensure the right people are campaign champions (Tweet #109: Who will be involved and how in the design, development, and execution of your thought leadership campaign? Why did you choose those people?).

[Tanmay Vora] Thank you Liz, for sharing your ideas and book with the readers of this blog. I am sure they will pick some important clues to build their own thought leadership.
[Liz Alexander]
I’m grateful for the opportunity, Tanmay. Thank you!

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Get the book on: Amazon | Flipkart.com (if you are in India)

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Bio: Dr. Liz Alexander is a business book strategist and consulting co-author who works with executives and consultants in the US and India, providing the questions (and solutions) to help them discover and communicate their unique thought leadership space. Her 14th book #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign is designed to ensure aspiring thought leaders consider all aspects of a successful thought leadership campaign before investing time, money, and effort. One of her favorite words is “why?”

Innovation, Quality & Entrepreneurship at Akshaya Patra

Akshaya Patra Foundation in India is a shining example of how social entrepreneurship combined  with power of innovation can make a HUGE difference.

First, some background information. Akshaya Patra is an Indian NGO that provides mid day meals to about 1.2 million children across India on all school days. These meals act as an incentive for these kids to come to the school and study. Even more amazing is the fact that for one kid, the cost of a nutritious mid day meal for one full year is only Rs. 600 (or ~$13). How do they achieve this sort of scale at such low cost? I wondered too, till I visited one of their kitchens in Ahmedabad recently.

  • Innovation in Delivery: Kitchens are specially designed to meet the scale and quality requirements. They use technology to cook more food in less time. When we visited the kitchen, it was no less than a highly advanced factory with machines for everything including grain cleaning, cutting the vegetables, preparing the chapatti (breads), boiling the rice and loading the containers. These machines cook food that meets the defined nutrition requirements and taste. Many of these machines are indigenously modified to meet their unique requirement.
  • Focus on Quality: When we went into the office, I could see some well defined checklists. On further inquiry, we found that their kitchen was ISO 22000 (Food Safety) Certified. They collect some key metrics including cost per meal and constantly look for ways to optimize it. They have built their own standard for supply chain right from procuring raw material to delivery of these meals in schools across. Truly remarkable!
  • Entrepreneurship: Akshaya Patra’s mission is “No child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger” and that is no small one. But after visiting Akshaya Patra, I can only say one thing: If you really want to do something, you always find ways to do it. At the core of entrepreneurship is the ability to see a gap and more importantly, do something about it. Their website says,

“The surest way to break out of the cycle of poverty is through education. Education can significantly improve the quality of life of a family for generations to come. When the basic needs of a child, such as food are not met, education often becomes the last priority. The meal is an incentive for them to continue their education. It helps reduce the dropout rate to an enormous extent and increases classroom attendance.”

For many children who are beneficiaries of these meals, it is probably the one and only meal that they get in the day. President Obama lauded their efforts and recently, Akshaya Patra was also featured at Harvard Business Blogs.

Akshaya Patra is a great example of how entrepreneurial spirit combined with focus on innovation and quality can overcome all roadblocks and bring about a big difference to our society and our future.

The ‘Invisibles’ in Business Performance

In world of quality and management, W. Edwards Deming is widely famous for “Deming’s 14 points” and “Seven Deadly Diseases”. One of these deadly disease according to Deming is “Running a company on visible figures alone”.

Whether manufacturing or knowledge industry, primary goal of business is to generate value. However, in knowledge world, where the raw material is human brain, how this value is generated matters. Deming opined that everything that is critical for business performance may not be measurable.

However, planning for and managing these invisibles makes all the difference in an organization’s performance – more so in service and knowledge oriented world.

So, apart from visible figures (top line, bottom line, productivity, defect rates etc) what are the invisibles that play a huge role in determining performance of a business? Here are a few I could think of:

  • Organization’s vision and values (and the extent to which  values are lived)
  • Stories people tell each other at water coolers (organization’s culture)
  • Employee’s actual engagement levels
  • People’s alignment to organization’s vision and values
  • What customers/people say (and to what extent do they really mean it)?
  • Existence of invisible functional/departmental barriers
  • Knowledge, skills and attitude of professionals
  • Actual empowerment to people/managers/leaders in making things happen
  • Top Leadership’s viewpoints and mental barriers (short term v/s long term)
  • Knowledge versus application gap (and tapping discretionary effort of people)
  • Actual training effectiveness (and to what extent it improved business outcomes)
  • Innovation effectiveness and dynamic changes in the economy/market forces.

It is said – “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” But what really counts can always be managed.

In my view, there is a difference between “running a business” and “building a high performance organization”. In both cases, generating revenue and profit margins are equally important. But with visible figures alone, a business is run. By managing the invisibles together with the visible figures, a high performance, sustainable and scalable organization is built.